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posted/updated: 14 Nov 2019 -
Book by Terrence McNally; music by Stephen Flaherty; lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; based on the novel, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
society/company: Sedos (directory)
performance date: 13 Nov 2019
venue: The Bridewell Theatre, Bride Lane, London, EC4Y 8EQ EC4Y
reviewer/s: Chris Abbott (Sardines review)

Photos: Dancers of London

Once again, SEDOS bring a neglected piece of musical theatre to the Bridewell, and their production of Ragtime pulls out all the stops to give this ambitious but flawed show everything it needs. It’s a show more talked about than seen, loved for its soaring melodies and powerful story but perhaps beginning to show its age in these more cynical and pessimistic times. For the 2hrs 40mins of the show however, the artistry and experience of these cast and creatives almost convinces us, and carries us along to the hopeful conclusion. And if it wasn’t for skilled and experienced amateur groups like SEDOS, there would be few opportunities to see such shows, especially at close quarters in a small venue like the Bridewell (even if the seats there are not quite comfortable enough for a show of this length).

The show tells the story of three groups in American society at the beginning of the last century: East Coast suburbanites resisting the changes around them, black inhabitants of Harlem discovering Ragtime, and immigrants, especially eastern European Jews, arriving in hope at Ellis Island. Mixed in with this heady brew are real historic figures like Booker T Washington, Harry Houdini and Henry Ford. Gradually a story develops and we see how members of these groups first meet and then become entwined with each other. It’s all very telescoped of course, with E L Doctorow’s 1975 novel condensed into the book of the musical by playwright Terence McNally and with music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.

Many groups would not be able to cast this show, let alone put it on stage, but SEDOS can do so and with verve and invention in Matt Gould’s pacy and intelligent production, managing his cast of 32 well and ensuring that the complex storyline is at all times as clear as possible. MD Ryan Macauley conducts an 18-piece orchestra and it is a delight to hear this score played so well and in these orchestrations. Choreography from Victoria Louise-Currie and Rachel Elfassy-Bitoun is nicely differentiated for the various groups and makes good use of the multi-layered set.

That set, from designer Steven King, is a triumph. I have seldom seen such a well-designed set at the Bridewell, and with great attention to detail. The various levels sat well within this auditorium, itself a survivor of the period of the show, and even the pillars in the set were made to match those left from what was once a Victorian swimming pool. New Rochelle, Harlem and the lower East Side are all suggested with economy and style, and where particular items are required such as Edith Nesbit’s swing or the bleachers at the baseball game, these deftly appear and as quickly melted into the background. The quickly assembled – and as quickly trashed – Model T Ford is a masterstroke.

The set and production is greatly enhanced by Deborah Lean’s magnificent costumes, with the immaculate white of the suburbs nicely contrasting with the other cast members. The suit worn by the newly rich Coalhouse Walker tells us as much as the performance does, and the costumes in this show really help to tell the story, as well as looking good. The programme is a good read too, from Ryan Macaulay’s interesting explanation of Ragtime to the various notes about the show and its writers. Too often, amateur programmes are only about the cast, but that is not a mistake made here. Good to see the Company Stage Manager and Producer getting a bio too – not often the case. On first night the sound was sometimes harsh and over-loud during dialogue scenes but this improved by the second half, and balance between singers and orchestra was good. Whoever was controlling the smoke machine might also need to rein back a little; at one point the front row totally disappeared.

The cast are all up to the task given them, but with 32 in the company it is impossible to do more than mention a few who caught the eye. Young performer Evan Huntley-Robertson opened and closed the show in a quiet but authoritative performance as the Little Boy (with Dwayne Ravenor also making the most of his few mins on stage as the representative of future generations). As Little Girl, Jessica Helfgott had less of a leading role but is entirely convincing. Two contrasting but historical female characters, vaudeville singer and political activist, were well portrayed by Deborah Lean and Zo Pisera. Daryl Armstrong makes much of the small role of Houdini, and Andrew Overin’s Father is appropriately distant and mostly unable to comprehend the changes around him.

Among the leads, Jonathan Grant is a well-acted and nicely sung Coalhouse Walker Jr, earnest and sincere, with Sara Rajeswaran making her mark in a smaller role as the mother of his child. Rob Archibald sings vigorously and provides a broad Tateh and a rather more nuanced performance when he evolves (rather suddenly) into a prosperous film director. The two performers who shone for me were Robert J. Stanex as the troubled and conflicted Younger Brother, in many ways the narrator of the show, and Chloë Faine in the central role of Mother. Faine gives a detailed and beautifully sung performance and provides much of the heart of the show, as well as almost convincing us of the possibility of the story line.

It’s a chance not to be missed to see this important show in a confident and powerful production, even if some aspects like the generic naming of some of the characters now seem dated and the final cameo of the American Dream family jars rather with the reality of Trump’s 21st century America. But this is musical theatre not documentary, and judged as such this is a must-see.

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